The Rockstars’ ESF School PYP Talks And Workshop (Or, The Children Who Grow Socks And Tut-tut Their Parents’ Food Choices)

Caveat: Long post. There's a side story in italics right at the end that you might like, though... 

The Rockstars' ESF School PYP Talks And Workshop - or, The Children Who Grow Socks And Tut-tut Their Parents' Food Choices. Or, Schools' Secret Plan Of World Domination, One Chip-Abhorring, Cupcake-Tutting Little Freak At A Time. (I get to make the little freak jokes because I have one.)

This just in: It's both harder and not as hard as it used to be, in school... 

N-ot quite like this (pic from

(pic from

From Rockstar's school workshop...

"PYP (Primary Years Program) is inquiry-based... makes the learner want to learn..." yet..

"It raises the stakes for what we expect of children..." 

One of the kids interviewed in the the video parents were shown described their learning, "They try to find out what (each of us are good at) and then bring that out..."

Guess if it's actually raining?

Q: Was it raining? (Scroll down for answer. Also, note facial expressions.)

We have the privilege now of having both a 3+ year old and an almost-8 year old in the ESF system in Hong Kong. 8 days after I attended the Miss' Hillside Kindergarten PYP  Early Years briefing, Rockstar's Kennedy Primary School had a PYP workshop. Ever since then, periodically I take a swing at writing about it... and chickening out. This parent is still trying to wrap her head around the huge gap between what learning in school was like in our day, vs what it's like today. (So judge not the message by the limitations in understanding of the messenger :D)

We are told first of all that PYP is an international frameworknot a curriculum. In May 2015, there were 1266 schools offering PYP in 106 different countries, worldwide. The workshop is opened quoting Albert Einstein: Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind. 

Some estimates put the number at 65%. The number of jobs our kids will grow up to compete for, which don't currently exist today. A Myth For Teachers on the other hand is cynical, and dubs this an excuse for "dumbing down" - i.e. if everything is irrelevant, there is no need to teach content. I stumbled upon that link while googling the 65%...... but if you ask me, they're two completely different conversations. A debate about content can be a very different one than a conversation about technique. To me, content implies a deliberate choice of the educator, some of which will certainly be biased to what is held to be important (think Evolution vs Creationism in schools in the States). Technique.... Well now. I wish they taught me some of those Maths short cuts when I was growing up.

"How does your child construct meaning?"

We're asked to give some thought to what learners do when they develop understanding. It sets the tone for the evening, for us parents to make ourselves think about how and why the school goes about the projects, lessons, homework, extra activities and outings that they do. For me a big one was then "What hinders your child's learning?"

I flippantly want to say "Youtube!" but in truth Rockstar watches quite a few instructional videos too, and so the fear of being wrong is probably a bigger one. There's a separate article by the Atlantic When Success Leads To Failure:

"...sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement..."

It's one of the things that I think most sets apart how our kids learn today (at least in the system which I'm aware of - i.e. going the ESF IB PYP route), compared to what I knew, growing up. Maybe to some extent it's a reason why so many grownup, otherwise extremely capable professionals still feel an insecurity in admitting they don't know something or that well, they might be wrong.

Insecurity is one of the worst things to me, in a society, and yet we all get it at some point or other. It has nothing to do with a person's actual ability, but it will most certainly affect - infect - their interactions with people and the enjoyment of what they do. Insecurity is what brings out the questionable behaviour in all of us, when we know we are capable of better.

The biggest irony is that tiger parents (who can often be insecure) by definition want their kids to excel in performance, often at the price of free time and some independence in thinking....... but this very action of tiger parenting is what removes an otherwise important "edge" in a child's ability to perform. 

(At previous school briefings we've been told Kumon-esque kill-and-drill is worlds away from the way in which our kids learn.) For want of a more effective example, I would put it as the difference between all the structured steps in getting a computer - otherwise able to perform the most complicated of calculations - to have the kind of original thinking and creativity a small child has on their own. That is not to say kids don't learn their times tables, they do (though in Rockstar's case online IXL which we also got from the school makes it more fun)... but that's maybe 20% of everything they do. Thing is, someday, it probably won't matter that much if they got an A or a B+ in a particular paper this week or the next, but what they have learnt about how to interact with other people will. 

Units of Inquiry are universal throughout Kindy up til Primary Year 6, increasing greatly in depth as the kids get older. For e.g., a Who We Are learning unit for K1 will be more about family and siblings, whereas a Y6 one might be more about say, self identity. Rockstar at Y4 level turned in an assignment about human migration - reasons, effects on the immigrants as well as the native population...

This is a painting Rockstar did to illustrate his understanding of public vs private spaces last year

And this is a painting Rockstar did to illustrate his understanding of public vs private spaces last year in Y3 - he'd said "The ocean is public but the boat is private..."

While there are similarities across the board, we are told the schools design the UOIs.

When the kids start at Kindergarten level, PYP Early Years acknowledges how not a few children lack "playskills" - how to negotiate, collaborate, work together as a team...... So, Imagine If The Kids Could Learn These Skills Earlier?

Therefore, rather than focussing on academics, sharing is the big one. Playskills. In the Kindy they might deliberately provide fewer scissors than there are little kids and leave the kids to duke it out impose turn-taking and sharing on the kids. (Sorry, can't help thinking this is still very difficult even for grownups living in HK :D)

Another biggie at Rockstar's school level is nutrition/ healthy eating learning units or lunch box audits (yes, I will call it that!) and giving junk food-eating parents an earful. School staff conducting our workshop did not hide their smugness very well, humph. World Domination, one chip-abhorring, cupcake-tutting little freak at a time. (I get to say that because Rockstar is also one - he's a) been served chips on playdate and asked to read the nutrition label, and b) Kings can no longer eat regular chips in our home without at least a snarky remark. We have spoken to Rockstar regarding social cake-eating situations without being a total killjoy because we all still need friends in this world.)

One of the hardest things to wrap my head around (yet also the best) is child-led learning. Not only are there pretty much no "wrong" answers, in the Kindy they describe how they produce "provocations" - for e.g. bringing the outside inside - one day the kids come in to a "messed up classroom," maybe with twigs and leaves strewn about their normally clean and tidy area.

We are told of the jumpy little kid who insisted on growing his own sock, when all the other kids had planted beans. He got to do it, and because of his choice, the kids then moved on to a discussion of what normally grows and what doesn't, and why. The lesson is enriched by one child's individual choice - but he's still going to learn for himself why they were asking everyone to grow beans not socks.......

On workshop evening at Kennedy School, I attend the less popular timeslot with what look like 70, 80 attendees. We are told there were over 100 parents in the earlier session, so all in all maybe 200 parents (there are roughly 900 kids in the primary school) work in discussion groups, complete with workshop coords checking our answers, for about 90 minutes.

I don't think we took that as well as our kids would've. Then again, we weren't schooled from the very beginning to be "risk takers," unafraid of speaking up with a wrong answer, either. I think not a few of us smart from memories of proverbially having our writing exercise books tossed out the window (also, my mum told me that really did happen to her once :D).

If we acknowledge that, then the next question is what'll our kids be like when they grow up? More equipped to handle the exponentially increasing rate at which the world and jobs and opportunities are changing? Erm, excellent? By that unwritten rule where we strive to give our children better than we ourselves received, let's hope so.

Here's a typical learning unit question:

What is International Minded-ness? How do other people see the world, what do they hold as important... Languages? Flags? Traditional Dress?

The PYP trainer/coord conducting our big workshop described how erm, "less-diversified" his school had been, growing up, with families who had literally never been out of the town or state - in Hong Kong, he made the comparison, our kids' classes are obviously the opposite to this. Can you imagine how much more fleshed out learning units are, when you learn so much about your friends' very different cultures (and yes the kids get to talk about them)... You actually have a friend from that exotic country sitting right next to you.

(Something I found very amusing that Rockstar came home talking about was how many kids come to school in soccer and rugby kits 😀 World Cups and Rugby 7s are big deals for many families here and yes, they too form part of the culture. It was a nice touch that during rugby season I think it was, when there were lotsa boys and girls coming to school in their team gear, Rockstar got to wear his taekwondo uniform in as well. They really don't forget anyone...)

We used to get questions re Rockstar as well - whether we were "worried" that his education wasn't "academic" enough, that he wasn't getting enough homework. The short answer is, they do get "homework" or assignments, and learning, it just doesn't look like what we expected because of how much education has changed since we went to school.

(Lucky kids nowadays 🙂

Epilogue: Our children will still do better, ceteris paribus, than we did. Because Motivation. Motivation is the difference between sitting down the 90 minutes in a meeting where people "brainstorm," vs thinking about how to do things better - when you look out the window going to work, when you check your cellphone... Motivation is..... gold. That extra energy, is gold. Because offhand I can't think of anyone really crazy hit-the-ball-out-of-the-park successful who would say to you, "It's just a job and/or I hate this job."

...Also in the When Success Leads To Failure article linked above:

"...We taught her to come home proudly bearing As, championship trophies, and college acceptances, and we inadvertently taught her that we don’t really care how she obtains them..."

...the thing about cheating is it's addictive - you'll think "just once" is ok and then before you know it, the one you cheat the most will be yourself. Because you'll start to believe that it's the only way you can win.

The Rockstars were on big whole-day playdate at super crowded Ocean Park on the recent holiday (which is also why I now have no voice :D), and at one of the fair games, his friend won a prize... around the same time a second ball scored a larger prize. His friend stuck to the one he'd won, and Rockstar.... said the second ball wasn't his.

I. Know. And it's very very hot ok....

I. Know. And it's very very hot ok....

"Are you sure? If it wasn't yours, then whose was it??" The stall girls asked. I will admit to being tempted. You know, that instant gratification whereby it's so easy for you to say "Yeah! That's his ball right there!" and both boys will bound away with their prizes - with my son holding the bigger prize. Rockstar glances briefly at his friend's prize and my heart skips a beat.... then the moment is gone. (Hours later, when we said goodbye to our friends, the rockstars went back and played a couple more games and he did win something else - and every time Rockstar sees that prize, I hope he also remembers the one he DIDN'T pretend to win. The fake one would NEVER feel this good.)

No one claimed the bigger prize. Not Rockstar's friend, not Rockstar, not anyone else at the crowded booth, that day. All those little kids, all those parents who spend a ton of money on these boh liau games just because your child wants to WIN something at the fair....

Doesn't that restore your faith in humanity just a little bit?        

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About Aileen

I blog about living and raising my son in Hong Kong - where toddlers have entrance interviews, parents keep test score spreadsheets, private school debentures can trade for more than half a million USD. Raising Rockstar's the most important thing I'll ever do. We show our true colors by the choices we make in bringing up our children. My blog is a message to my toddler son, about what the world and his parents are like today - for when he becomes a teenager and knows everything.
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  • mun

    What a thought provoking piece about education.

    It must be a mystery whose ball it was that hit the bigger prize. Maybe a stray ball thrown by someone far, far away. Good for Rockstar – he is such a honest boy with integrity.

    • Aileen

      Must be someone in the group, it was v v crowded and no place to stand in front of the game windows.. But no one was sure it was theirs so no one claimed it..

  • Mei

    The answer to the question posted under the picture of Lil Miss holding the brolly and Rock star isn’t, is it about “sharing”??? Ie Less brolly to the number of kids and see how they deal with the situations
    ??? 😀

    • Aileen

      Thank you for reminding me cos after wifi died on my first post and I scrambled to recover it… I forgot!

      It’s raining. Or rather, drizzling. Rockstar only uses “cool” umbrellas, nothing else, certainly not a raincoat (which is much more advisable if you ask me)… So we finally got him a plain black brolly that looks like a ninja/sword or gun n straps to his back..